Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

January 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Novella Carpenter obviously had Isak Dinesen in mind when she typed the opening line of  Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto”.   The similarities between the two are hard to ignore.  Both women were/are professional writers, as well as farmers.  But I find Carpenter the more likable, and in all honesty, the more comfortable in her farmer persona.   Dinesen had a huge coffee plantation in Africa while Carpenter has only a small, empty lot behind her apartment – yet, somehow Carpenter appears less the hobbyist.

It’s hard not to love Farm City.  Prior to reading it I had merged the concept of urban farmer with community gardener.  I envisioned the 2008 documentary The Garden or, probably more apt, Rooftop Farms in Brooklyn.  Chickens, inexplicably, were permitted in my personal Farm Town fantasy – which was otherwise strictly vegetarian.   Novella Carpenter has a decidedly different definition of an urban farmer.  One which, by the end of Part 1, I found myself surprisingly comfortable with.

At parties lately I sometimes had to defend my urban-farmer identity.  The term “urban farm” had become part of the popular vernacular, and many people – especially real, rural farmers – took umbrage to it.  They were especially annoyed when the self-proclaimed urban farmers had only a few heads of lettuce and a pair of chickens.  My definition of “urban farming” involved selling, trading, or giving the products of the farm to someone else.  There couldn’t just be a producer; there had to be a separate consumer.  A real farm also had to involve some kind of livestock.

When strangers at dinner parties questioned the legitimacy of the term “urban farmer,” I only had to show them a photo of me scratching the pigs’ backs with a rake, the auto shop lurking in the background, and the debate was over.

She begins with poultry, comparing it to a gateway drug.  4 chickens within a few pages increase to 3 turkeys, 3 ducks, 2 geese and 10 more chickens (aka the Murray McMurray Hatchery’s mail order “Homesteaders Delight”).   They are not pets.  She will be raising them for meat.  Like most urban dwellers, it is not a concept I easily embrace.  I still like to keep a healthy distance between myself and my dinner.   Blame it on too many Disney cartoons.  I don’t want to pet the entrée.

Farm City is divided into three parts  – Turkey, Rabbit and Pig.  By the time I finished Turkey I realized that not only was I comfortable with what Carpenter was doing, I’d come to better understand my earlier aversion to it.  In my mind the butchering of animals was associated with crowded livestock trucks passed on the highway.  Novella Carpenter provides a better example, a more humane and a more responsible one.  She defines animal sacrifice in the form of honey stolen from bees or meat butchered from a pig.  These animals have been given a fair trade – food, care and comfortable lives.  The farmer has earned her meal through caring for them… and worked hard doing it.

Caring for livestock is no easy feat.  Caring for livestock on the small plot of land in Oakland, California that she has named Ghost Town Farm should be listed among the labors of Hercules.  Escapee pigs and turkeys headed for the highway, packs of stray dogs, vegetarian neighbors and the constant threat of having her farm replaced by condos – Novella Carpenter encounters obstacles Laura Ingalls Wilder never dreamed of.

But she also makes discoveries, inseparable from the urban environment she has chosen. Livestock feed that comes from dumpsters behind produce markets and restaurants.  Greens donated to the local Black Panthers to be made into lunches for children as part of a literacy program.   Fennel harvested from beside train tracks.  Carpenter finds resources, supporters and mentors in seemingly the most unlikely places.  It is made abundantly clear that she farms in the city by choice and that her methods are strictly urban, not suited to rural farming.  Reading Farm City you never lose the sense of where she is or of the potential of what she is doing.

In Part 2: Rabbits, to prove the legitimacy of her urban farm lifestyle (to herself more than anyone else in my opinion) she spends the month of July eating exclusively from her farm.  There are some exceptions:  items previously grown and preserved, fruit from neighborhood trees and some barter is allowed.    On Day 10 she finds a plum-tree growing next to an abandoned house.  She reaches it by climbing onto the roof of the adjacent carport.  She eats some fruit, describing it as “vaguely dry, maybe too sour” but on a hunch picks two bags worth to take home.

…I dunked the plums in a bucket filled with water and mercilessly scrubbed them down.  I loaded my oven with widemouthed jars, and boiled water in a giant blue enamel canning pot.  After the jars were sterilized – really hot – I crammed as many whole plums into the jars as could fit.  I boiled the jars of plums in the water bath – this process is called raw-pack canning – and once some plums had softened and cooked down, I crammed in a few more until they were an inch from the top of the jar.  Then I screwed on the lids and let the jars rumble under two inches of boiling water for about an hour.  When I pulled the jars from the water, they plums had turned an amazing fuchsia color.  I placed the hot jars of plums into our pantry to cool down overnight and set the seal…

The next day for breakfast, while Bill heated up his unbearably delicious smelling Dumpster rolls, I opened a jar of the stewed plums.  Just as it should be, the lid was tight and hard to pry off, but finally yielded with a satisfying pop.  Inside, a thick juice the color of wine covered the plums.  I took a swig.  Sweet, thick nectar with a slight hint of cherry filled my mouth.  I dug into the flesh of the plum on top with a spoon.  It was dense and puddinglike, tart but not as sour as the raw fruits.

There’s a kind of beautiful symbolism in that which, like so much of Farm City, fits.  I can’t help but think that Novella Carpenter and her fellow urban farmers are the new pioneers in a world changing.  Evolving old methods to work in a new setting.  Seeing the potential and reaping the rewards of what has been abandoned by the rest of us.

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Oh yeah, that other book Michael Pollan wrote…

January 18, 2010 § 2 Comments

Garden books and winter go together.  After the garden has been covered over,  – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read?

Of course, by now someone has told you that you HAVE to pick up a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (if you haven’t already).  But before The Omnivore’s Dilemma; before “Eat Food.  Not Too Much.  Mostly Plants.” was made into a bumper sticker; before he wrote the letter telling the Obama’s to plant veggies on the White House lawn;  before all that Michael Pollan wrote a book called Second Nature:  A Gardener’s Education.  And by any standard it was, and remains, a beautiful piece of writing.

With the harvest moon, which usually arrives towards the end of September, the garden steps over into that sweet, melancholy season when ripe abundance mingles with auguries of the end anyone can read.  Except, perhaps, some of the tropical annuals, which seem to bloom only more madly the closer the frost comes.  Mindless of winter’s approach and the protocols of dormancy, the dahlia and the marigold, the tomato and basil, make no provision for frost, which might be a month away, or a day.  The annuals in September practice none of the inward turning of the hardy perennials, which you can see slowing down, taking no chances, turning their attention from blossom and leaf to root and stashed starch.  But instead of battening down the hatches, saving something for another day, the annuals throw themselves at the thinning sun, open-armed and ingenuous.  On those early autumn days when frost hangs in the air like a sword of Damocles, evident as sunlight to the lowest creature, is there anything more poignant than a dahlia’s blithe, foolhardy bloom?

Divided into four parts, conveniently corresponding to the four seasons, Second Nature was chosen by the American Horticultural Society as one of the seventy-five greatest gardening books written.  It was the book that put Michael Pollan’s blip on the radar.

Pollan’s attraction, in part, is his laid back take on the environment.  Consider: Eat Food.  Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Not exactly the rallying cry of St. Crispin’s Day, is it?  Pollan has always struck me as the X-Generation’s environmentalist:  Eating his sushi at Nobu. Planting a tree only to find out after the fact he’s put in an invasive species.  Refusing to bow down at the altar of composting (an act he admits borders on heresy in some circles).  Or, my personal favorite, smirking at the pretensions of Thoreau playing at hermit in the forest.  Pollan makes environmentalism accessible to the masses.

Second Nature is the rare gardening/environmental book in that it is concerned with the real work of gardening. What many see as mundane tasks – mowing the lawn, weeding, composting and planting  – these gain greater social and political significance in Pollan’s hands.  He shows them to be more than simple acts which result in pretty landscapes or homegrown tomatoes in summer.  Second Nature calls upon readers to form a backyard environmental movement.

At the same time it provides a visceral scrapbook of what happens inside of a garden, embracing the Sisyphean cycle of planting, growing, harvest and death that is repeated yearly in backyards across the country.  Pollan’s genius is that he views the garden as both a micro- and  macrocosm.  Like Voltaire, he urges us to tend to our own garden. But he also applies this same philosophy to our greater environmental concerns.   He points out that, having taken the step to cultivate the earth, we have taken on the responsibility of managing it.   We  have insinuated ourselves into nature, irrevocably altering the “natural” course, which means we cannot step out and expect an anthropomorphized version of “Nature” to step back in as if there had been no interruption.  We cannot make the mistake of romanticizing nature, the virgin forest or the primeval landscape.  We must learn to work with what we have… what in many ways we have wrought.  Ultimately, the habits which make a good gardener, he believes, will make good environmentalists.

The gardener doesn’t take it for granted that man’s impact on nature will always be negative.  Perhaps he’s observed how his own garden has made this path of land a better place, even by nature’s own standards.  His gardening has greatly increased the diversity and abundance of life in this place.  Besides the many exotic species of plants he’s introduced, the mammal, rodent, and insect populations have burgeoned, and his soil supports a much  richer community of microbes than it did before….

The gardener doesn’t feel that by virtue of the fact that he changes nature he is somehow outside of it.  He looks around and sees the human hopes and desires are by now part and parcel of the landscape.  The “environment” is not, and has never been, a neutral, fixed backdrop; it is in fact alive, changing all the time in response to innumerable contingencies, one of these being the presence within it of the gardener.  And that presence is neither inherently good now bad.

By constantly shifting his perspective from the forest to the trees and back again, Pollan provides a larger action plan which can be implemented at a truly grass-roots level.  The genius is that he does so without ever stepping outside of his own garden.  In Second Nature he is not an environmental prophet, but another pilgrim on the journey. Sometimes misstepping, yet still doggedly making his way.  Trowel in hand.

How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

January 11, 2010 § 3 Comments

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.

Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

January 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Every year since owning my own home I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard.  My garden is not for the faint of heart.  The plants start from seeds in the sun room and by mid-July I have a small ecosystem to rival a Brazilian rainforest in the yard.  Carrots, bush beans, thyme, mint, rosemary, peppers, lavender, broccoli, eggplant… all manage to cohabit amiably until the tomatoes take over.  Once those bad boys start sprouting all bets are off.  We refer to my 6 x 9 foot patch of produce as “the heart of darkness” and a chicken wire fence is all that stands between us and it.  Take my word for it, Pennsylvania is a primo spot for tomato growing.

Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994.  He started growing his tomato seedlings under florescent lights in a Brooklyn apartment and after getting booted by his landlord took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania.  “Farm” is putting it generously – he has 2 acres dedicated to growing which, by his own account, he does not own.  But what he grows on those 2 acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC.  His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer is not an account of his journey from PA to Brooklyn and back again.  It’s no more or less than what the title claims – a mishmash of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan.  (There’s a whole archive of articles that didn’t make the cut over at Gourmet.com).  What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a damn good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer.  And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days.  That edge creeps in.  This isn’t Garrison Keillor or some heartwarming pioneer family mini-series on the Hallmark Channel.  Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses.  He’s also a bit of a crank.  He complains his way through much of the book… About not being accepted by the other farmers in his area.  About farmers competing with Real Estate developers for farmland.  About what the government charges and the paperwork it requires before you can call your produce “organic”.  About readers of Gourmet sending him hate mail after the magazine published his story about killing a groundhog as he deals with un-diagnosed lyme disease (add hypochondriac to his possible sins).  Stark’s crankiness is a big part of what makes his storytelling so much fun.

Knowing I was broke from buying a tractor and from buying all of the material that went into constructing the greenhouse, they (his Mennonite neighbor, neighbor’s son, brother and father, who all showed up seemingly unannounced one Spring day to help Stark put up his greenhouse) refused to accept payment for their services.  And I wasn’t even a member of their church.  So I tried to be a sport… I threw myself into the next job that had been lined up for the crew: putting the roof on a barn.  I found myself fifty feet up, clinging to a roof beam, cowering and dropping nails to the ground as all around me Mennonites young and old tromped along without the slightest fear in the world.  I hung in there for about forty-five minutes, nervously pounding a nail or two, clinging to dear life and dropping three nails for every one that I pounded in.  When I finally said enough was enough, maneuvering over to the ladder and climbing down to safety, everybody up on the roof thanked me with such sincerity that, in view of my tiny, cowering contribution, I decided they could only have been thanking me for not falling and breaking my neck and leaving them with a real predicament on their hands.

Parenthesis mine.

It’s when Stark switches the focus off himself, his farm, and his experiences that Heirloom becomes a bit lackluster.  An example would be in the very first chapter where he spends too much time on the story of the failed farmer who was the de facto caretaker of Eckerton Farm when Stark moved there as a child.  We’re supposed to see a parallel between the lives of Milt Miller & Tim Stark, but while I understand that the author feels some kinship to the man I never completely buy into it – or into the bigger picture Stark is trying to paint.

Tim Stark is best when he remembers to be Tim Stark… not Michael Pollan.  When he remembers that readers want to hear about his first year growing tomatoes at Eckerton, of a hellish day spent delivering snap beans door-to-door to NYC restaurants, or selling chile peppers to West Indians.  Chapters that start with sentences such as ‘It was inevitable that we would come to be labeled as “the tomato people”…’  “My wife – the farmer’s wife, always sticking her nose where she got no bidness…”  “The bucket on my tractor snapped when I tried to clear the snow that finally stopped falling at noon on Valentine’s Day…”  are the ones that really sing.  Stark still gets his point across and his message out just as clearly as does Pollan, just in his own voice (which, in my opinion, feels more relevant).

Overall, the book is a winner.  I enjoyed it so much that I recommend going online to check out that archive of articles on Gourmet.com (if you haven’t found them already).  And since Condé Nast is closing the magazine, the clock just may be ticking on that.  Hopefully that means they’ll have to publish a follow-up to Heirloom.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

December 17, 2009 § 3 Comments

*Warning:  contains spoilers.

The Lost City of Z:  A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability.  He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.

See the resemblance?

In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”.  The party was never seen or heard from again.  Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened.  All failed (some disastrously).  The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination.  As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story.  Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof.  Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”.  Sightings were reported.  Psychics became involved.  As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:

According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken.  Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of.  Think Survivor meets the History Channel.

It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape.  Grann was certainly equal to the task.  He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle.  Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.

First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise).   Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue.  Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover.  He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them.  He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him.  I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.

Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment.  Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old.  While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion:  Fawcett and party died in the jungle.  It’s a bit anticlimactic.  The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them.  Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.

Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question.  Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”.  David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested  in the direction of further reading on the subject.  Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing.  Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations.  Portions were interesting.  Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city.  Yet this is only a small part of the narrative.   In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles.  As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.

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